e-Democracy ’08 – a good day out

e-Democracy 2008 - Headstar

I was at e-Democracy ’08 in London yesterday, an event run by Dan Jellinek of Headstar.  The consensus was that the number of new faces was down this year, possibly a reflection of the increasing maturity of the field rather than any effect of the credit crunch.

I’m hopeless at the social side of these events being a geeky/shy sort, but it was still good to catch up briefly with Catherine Howe of Public-i and to meet Bengt Feil and Rolf Luehrs face to face – PEP-NET seems to be making a lot of effort, and impact within the eP community.

More complete reports of the event will spring up very soon written by people closer to the pulse, so I’ll confine myself to some brief notes and thoughts.

To me, the most revealing speakers were from cities, rather than central government or NGOs. First up, Renate Mitterhuber from the city-state of Hamburg: a fascinating success story, showing the impact the technology can make when it becomes pervasive: e-government and e-participation now seem to be the default. They have moved from piloting and demonstrating consultation (eg how to manage the growth of the city), to having it as part of the normal political procesess, particularly when it comes to planning decisions.

Similarly, Richard McKay of Redbridge i gave an absorbing overview of the work they have done to develop their site to include personalisation and customisation – through identification of life stage and location. Lots of funky Web 2.0 effects. I came away with the impression that they are only now looking at creating widgets to provide their content where the people are – Google and Facebook homepages for instance.

Other observations:

  • The enthusiasm and commitment shown by a delegation from the Welsh Assembly, which included an AM – and contrasted with the total lack of a Scottish presence (I think I was the only scot present). A case of laurel-resting, or simply the SNP pretending the rest of the UK doesn’t exist?
  • A review by Tom Steinberg of the impact of technology on the political process which managed to not include the word ‘citizen’ once. He had a link to a cool anti-Palin website though!

The ineffectiveness of the EU as a sponsor came through – despite the moneys they have spent, no positive mention and no feeling that new technology is being developed. Instead pleas for more openness of information and concentration on open standards:  from Jack Thurston of FarmSubidy.org who are frustrated by the Commission’s inability to deliver up data they already have in a usable form, and Csaba Madarasz of the Central and Eastern Europe Citizens’ Network. Csaba highlighted the opportunity to support eP in Eastern Europe – where development has to take place in an environment of pervasive language barriers and low budgets: a prime case where an open source approach to sharing the investment in the common code-base would pay off (together with easy access to government data in standard formats).

To be fair, PEP-NET does seem to be one example where a relatively small amount of EU money is paying off, especially if it can move from networking to delivering. It’s certainly creating a lot of buzz.

The day ended with a knockabout debate between political figures: Peter Bazalgatte of YouGov, Iain Dale and two MPs: Margaret Moran and Willie Rennie. Much of the usual ground was covered – including a mini debate on the usefulness of blogs as a route to bypass the men in grey suits. Ian Dale (an articulate, educated man in a grey suit if ever there was one) was passionately for blogs as a route to open up dialog, whereas the MPs (Moran and Rennie) were highly sceptical. Tom Watson‘s blog was mentioned as a good example, the fate of Tom Harris was not discussed (my biggest regret: not asking whether the MPs on the closing panel thought his blogging had led to his downfall).

All in all  good day. I’ll be seeing if I can wrangle the funding for a repeat visit next year.

Update: 14 November

Thought I’d reproduce my comment on to Iain Dale’s criticism of the MPs here, for the sake of completeness:

I think though that you are being unfair to the MPs – they both emphasised that they are committed to communicating with their constituents. Perhaps they feel the risks vs benefits are too high when communicating via blogs, which lets face it are not ideal for reaching a geographically bounded community.

I’ll take Stephen’s word for it that Willie Rennie knows what he’s doing.

Finally – a question: do you feel that Tom Harris’s little blogging fiasco earlier this year had nothing to do with his downfall? Won’t ambitious (would be) MPs be more cautious in the future?

– but it’s worth reading the full exchange at Iain Dale’s site.

About Peter Cruickshank

Lecturer in the School of Computing and a member of the Centre for Social Informatics at Edinburgh Napier University, Scotland. Interested in information systems, learning, politics, society, security and where they intersect. My attempts at rounding out my character include food, cinema, running, history and, together with my lovely wife, bringing up a cat and a couple of kids.
This entry was posted in e-democracy, e-government, e-participation, thoughts, UK and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to e-Democracy ’08 – a good day out

  1. Peter says:

    Hey, I’ve been noticed by the a member of the blogging aristocracy! Thanks, Iain. Sorry about misremembering what you were wearing!

  2. damianwatson says:

    Hi Peter! Re: the Question Time style session – I became very frustrated that all the discussion revolved around blogs. I thought when Renate Mitterhuber asked the panel about their understanding of the philosophy of e-Democracy that the discussion would open up and concentrate on the topic.

    Sadly, the reponse showed how lacking the dialogue in the UK seems to be around how e-Democracy challenges the whole policy-making process end-to-end. Is all anyone can talk about Web 2.0 and UGC?

    Thoroughly enjoyed it though 🙂

  3. Pingback: Pep-Net - Pan European e-Participation Network » Blog Archive » My e-Democracy ‘08

  4. Peter says:

    Hi Damian
    Sorry about the slow response! Yeah – I agree, and that’s why I didn’t blog about the blogging sessions: I think there is a lot more to e-participation and e-democracy than blogging. Important though it is, and interesting though the digital dialogues session might have been, there are more transformative uses of technologies, as Hamburg and Redbridge illustrated.

    Thanks for using ‘UGC’ BTW – a new TLA for me to know! 🙂

  5. Pingback: Future Democracy ‘09 « Spartakan

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